Rushdie Non Grata by David Remnick (New Yorker)
“The Jaipur Literary Festival, a giddily chaotic celebration of the written word set on the grounds of a Rajasthan palace, ended in misery and embarrassment today, with the organizers bowing to pressure from local security forces and scotching plans for Salman Rushdie to ‘appear’ at the festival, finally, by video link. Rushdie had already been forced to cancel plans to come to Jaipur after he had received intelligence reports—bogus intelligence, as it turned out—that everyone from ‘paid assassins from the Mumbai underworld’ to radical Muslim clerics were sitting in malevolent wait.
“Rushdie’s video image was not allowed at the Festival, but he was on television tonight in India, being interviewed on NDTV, and he spoke out angrily about the “unscrupulous” Muslim groups that threatened him, and an Indian government that failed to act. Speaking from London, Rushdie called the whole affair ‘fantastically fishy’ and blamed the ruling Congress Party and other officials for bowing to electoral priorities and ignoring the priorities of freedom of expression.
“Rushdie pointed out that his work is freely distributed in many Muslim countries, including Egypt, Turkey, and, now, Libya. [...]
“[I]n October, 1988, India, the world’s largest democracy, ordered The Satanic Verses banned. It’s worth remembering that it did so four months before the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa calling for the execution of Salman Rushdie. The Iranian fatwa was lifted (though no one should have any illusions about the lingering danger) after a decade of wretched hiding, slanders, and violence directed against his translators; the ban on The Satanic Verses in India remains in place.
“The same fear of clerical protest animates the current Indian government, which is far more interested in retaining power than in freedom of expression, much less making life pleasant for Salman Rushdie and his readers. The Congress Party is trying to win Muslim votes in elections in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh next month, and so ‘even minor fulminations’ by regional imams ‘make the local leaders squirm,’ according to an article this week in the liberal magazine Outlook. The Rushdie affair in Jaipur is a pawn in this larger political game. Railing against a banned book that few here have managed to obtain and read is an easy way to stir up populist fervor. Various preachers and extremist politicians latched onto the Jaipur festival as an issue and directed full-throated attacks at Rushdie; old stuff, but it was enough. [...]
“Censorship has been a constant theme since the banning of the The Satanic Verses nearly a quarter century ago. The government, spurred by Hindu and Muslim groups and clerics, rushes in to preserve ‘order’ by decreeing, or tolerating, the suppression of free expression. M. F. Husain, a Muslim painter known as ‘the Picasso of India,’ who died last year in exile, faced a constant onslaught of death threats and lawsuits in India because he dared to paint Hindu goddesses in the nude and in suggestive poses. The Bangladeshi-born novelist and feminist Taslima Nasreen has been attacked and threatened repeatedly by Islamists for her book Lajja, or Shame, about a Hindu family threatened by Muslims. (Nasreen has had to live in Sweden and the United States for years at a time.) Only months ago, Joseph Lelyveld, the former Times executive editor, watched from afar as his new book on Gandhi, Great Soul, was banned in the state of Gujarat as ‘perverse in nature.’ The local authorities got the idea from tabloid reports in England that Lelyveld claimed that Gandhi was gay or bisexual; he makes no such claim. The book remains banned.”